Plastic 101: Types of plastic and what can be recycled

A material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that is polluting our planet and oceans

The world produces nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year – a huge amount as we have heard many times will end up in the ocean. Unfortunately, although plastic is a useful product and it is unlikely to ever leave our lives, many of these products are created for single-use only. An estimated 50% of all plastic is used only once and thrown away.

I’m sure by now you have heard about Plastic Free July, if you haven’t where have you been? We thought it would be really useful to drill down into what types of plastic there are, which plastics are used for what and which plastics can actually be recycled.

There are seven main types of plastic which we will look at today and hopefully help you learn a little bit more about the plastic you’re used to using in your everyday lives. If you are worried about the plastic you’re using check out our Plastic Free July series where we have suggested tips to switch out plastic in the kitchen, bathroom, workplace and everywhere else.

Polyethylene Terephthalate

What products is it used in? Clear bottles with a bubble at the bottom (drinks bottles, condiments etc), food trays (clear, green which package fruit, meat and food-to-go)

Can it be recycled? The most common type of recyclable plastics, remember remove the bottle lids before recycling (still recycle them but some areas differ so remove them first just in case)

What does it look like? It’s a tough, durable plastic which discolours when bent

Image result for plastic bottle

High Density Polyethylene

What products is it used in? White milk bottles of all sizes, bleach type bottles, washing machine liquids and some bottle caps

Can it be recycled? Really commonly recycled, rinse and remove the lids first

What does it look like? Thick and tough plastic (usually coloured) which bends. Caps can usually be bent too

Image result for milk bottles plastic

Polyvinyl Chloride

What products is it used in? Clear bottles with a line at the bottom, food trays, toys, pipes and wire insulation

Can it be recycled? Not usually – check locally

What does it look like? More fragile and will crack if under pressure or stay in bent position. Bottles make a crackling sound when bent

Low Density Polyethylene

What products is it used in?

What products is it used in? Plastic bags, plastic wrap and cling film

Can it be recycled? Some bags are recyclable at supermarkets, it is suggested to reuse bags instead. All wrap and cling film goes into landfill, especially materials contaminated with food

What does it look like? Can be thin or thick, but is flexible and easily torn

Image result for plastic bags


What products is it used in? Butter and margarine tubs, clear fresh soup containers, some bottle caps and glass jar caps

Can it be recycled? Not generally recycled – you’ll have to check locally

What does it look like? Will break rather than bend when under pressure, caps usually don’t bend

Image result for plastic butter tubs

Polystyrene or Styrofoam

What products is it used in? Yoghurt pots, insulated disposable cups, some trays and parcel packaging

Can it be recycled? Not generally recycled – you’ll have to check locally

What does it look like? Comes in lots of different forms, it will tear or break easily

Image result for plastic polystyrene cup

Polycarbonate, Acrylic, Styrene, Perspex

What products is it used in? Reading glasses, CD and DVD cases, electrical connections and wiring, general household plastics

Can it be recycled? It’s suggested to try to reuse these items as much as possible, these shouldn’t really be recycled unless specifically instructed they can be recycled

What does it look like? Most are very strong, coloured and will snap when a lot of pressure is applied

Image result for dvd cases

Plastic is absolutely everywhere, but hopefully with this information we can move away from using those plastics we know can’t be recycled (but PLEASE REMEMBER to check locally as the following are disputed in different councils) – food trays, toys, piping, butter and margarine tubs, clear soup containers, glass jar caps, yoghurt pots, polystyrene cups, parcel packaging, reading glasses, CD and DVD boxes, electrical equipment and whatever ‘general household plastics’ are. Make an effort today to change outcomes and cut as much plastic out of your life as you can.

Grace works for a School Improvement Partnership and is our resident ocean lover. Having worked as a scuba instructor in Indonesia she has picked up her fair share of ocean plastic. Her favourite eco product is Oliva Olive Oil Soap.